The designer who took a Chance with his Thank You Obama collection
For Joseph Robinson, pulling from culture is power and gratitude is the attitude
The photo shoot is against a moody, gray background. Chance the Rapper is soaked in iridescent light — his clothes, T-shirts, hoodies and one Obama “All-Star” jersey — combine for one kaleidoscopic pop. Welcome to the Thank You Obama collection, designed by Joseph Robinson, and it sold out in one day. “At first I was just going to put a picture up that I found online of Obama, but anybody can do that,” said Robinson. “I wanted to make stuff that was unique.”
The collection isn’t just about President Barack Obama though. And it’s not just about Chance the Rapper either. It’s about Chance the Rapper’s friend, the Chicago-based designer Joe Robinson. Robinson has been making clothes for more than five years, honing his niche: pop culture references. A 2013 piece was a beanie featuring a cheeky phrase about Rihanna. Rihanna saw it and sent a cease-and-desist, but Robinson, who previously worked as a brand ambassador for Adidas, saw his career in style and fashion take off anyway. Another bump came from the 2015 MTV VMA Awards, when Kanye West made the grand proclamation that he was going to run for the presidency in 2020. Robinson quickly made a T-shirt with the newly minted declaration. He put the shirt up on his website, and he says he made $50,000 in 10 minutes.
For the Obama collection, “I did some research,” said Robinson, who sees himself as “the CNN of clothes” and a “culture vulture.” He got some facts — as opposed to putting random stuff on a shirt. Robinson’s clothes are meant to be talking pieces. “I had to actually read my biography on the Obamas to make these clothes.” The collection is meant to say something and to make you look in your closet and smile.
Robinson calls his clothes “blue-collar streetwear.” One black hoodie reads “Obama 44” with an eagle on the back, while the front reads, “Thank You.” The Harvard crimson and white “A Message To Malia” tee sports her name boldly on the front, and in tiny letters there is a reminder that “We all smoke, it’s ok.” The “King Obama” tee features the 44th president crowned, and stoically breaking the fourth wall. It has a pinkish background that increases in intensity as it reaches Obama’s face, a heat map on fabric.
For the most part, the reception of the line has been good. But there’s always bound to be a sprinkling here or there of negativity, most often found in that most lovely crevice of the internet: the comments section. One comment stuck out to Robinson the most: “What did Obama ever do for you?”
Robinson remembers the day in Chicago when Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States. People gathered in Grant Park in downtown Chicago. There were hugs exchanged, there was a sense of warmth and an aura of love that Robinson had never felt before. In that moment, a black man had become president. In that moment, Robinson knew he could do whatever he wanted to do. He was inspired. “I can’t speak for America,” he said. “But Chicago was lit that night,” he said.
So in August 2016, Robinson began to conceptualize a clothing line centered around the Obamas and their legacy as the 44th first family. He wanted to add personal details to the designs that reflected the Obamas’ lives and to recognize each family member. First lady Michelle Obama’s high school mascot and graduation year, the couple’s wedding anniversary — delicate niceties that paint a picture of the scope of their lives. Sasha Obama’s design is still a work in progress.
After Obama’s election, Robinson quit his day job and opened two brick and mortar stores in Chicago. Now much of his clothing is available online. He plans on featuring a new person of influence — like Chance the Rapper — to periodically model the Thank You Obama line as it continues.
So, what exactly did Obama and his family do for Robinson? Simply, they inspired him. “I just wanted to say thank you to the Obamas for being in the White House and doing what you had to do,” he said. “You inspired a lot of people.”